Saga of the Saiga

The hump-nosed antelope of the Russian and Central Asian steppe may soon disappear

  • Laura Williams
  • Apr 01, 2004
GAZING ACROSS THE FLAT STEPPE in Russia's southern republic of Kalmykia, I spot what appears to be a flock of birds flying low over a sea of luminous white tufts of feathergrass. The flock dips into shallow depressions and flows over the terrain like a river. Looking through binoculars, I discover that the creatures actually are saiga antelope running at high speed. A hundred animals are fleeing from some danger--a wolf or poacher perhaps--turning in unison and kicking up clouds of red dust in their wake.

I'm fortunate to have witnessed so many individuals of what scientists fear is a dying species. Over the past decade, the number of saiga antelope that inhabit Eurasia has plummeted by 90 percent--one of the fastest and most dramatic declines of any animal species in recent history.

The antelope's populations are being decimated by poachers, who target males for foot-long horns used in Chinese medicine. "The situation with the saiga is desperate," confirms Eleanor Milner-Gulland, a conservation scientist at Imperial College London and a leading expert on the species. "If poaching continues, clearly the populations will decline toward extinction."

The saiga once roamed all the way from England to Alaska and, as recently as the eighteenth century, from the Carpathians to Mongolia. But during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, hunting and development of the species' arid steppe habitat fragmented its populations and dramatically decreased saiga numbers--from nearly two million in the middle of the twentieth century to only about 42,000 today. Surviving saiga are divided into four isolated populations, all in the former Soviet Union. Russia's only population, in Kalmykia bordering the Caspian Sea, contains 12,000 animals, while three other groups, with a combined population of 30,000, primarily inhabit Kazakhstan, occasionally migrating south to Turkmenia and Uzbekistan.

Saiga are nomadic creatures that frequently cross borders of provinces and countries during their several-hundred-mile migrations to winter grazing areas. The antelope, in fact, are almost always on the move, traveling hundreds of miles over the course of a few days, for example, to find water or flee predators such as wolves. This mobility often puts the saiga in harm's way. Highways, railroads, canals and pipelines create dangerous obstacles to the animals' critical migrations. Thousands of saiga have drowned trying to cross irrigation canals alone.

An even more serious threat comes from poachers, who often eradicate entire groups of animals on the move. Though the antelope can run at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour--fast enough to escape any natural predator--they cannot outrun people pursuing them by motorcycle. During one harsh winter four years ago, some 80,000 saiga crossed from Kalmykia into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan to the south. Weeks later, only a few animals returned. Witnesses reported that the snow was red with blood from the slaughter.

Poaching is fueled by demand in China, where saiga horns are used to treat fevers and fetch up to $100 a kilo (2.2 pounds) in markets. The horns are smuggled by train from Moscow to Beijing and over the border between Kazakhstan and China.

Saiga are odd-looking creatures, with small, stout bodies propped on short, skinny legs. Averaging 30 inches at the withers, the antelope is about the size of a large dog. A bulbous hump on its soft nose filters out dust that blows across the dry plain. Only males sport the prized horns, about 12 to 14 inches long, which help them defend harems of one to two dozen females.

The species is known for its high fecundity. A female saiga will begin breeding and give birth to her first calf by the time she's a year old. Mature females bear two or even three calves a year. "This is a very resilient species," says Milner-Gulland. "It has shown its ability to bounce back from very low numbers."

At the beginning of the twentieth century, with its numbers down to just a few thousand, the saiga was nearly extinct. It got a second chance, though, when the Soviet Union was created in 1917. Not only did officials ban saiga hunting from 1919 until the 1950s--with strictly enforced quotas after that--they closed the country's borders, which stopped international trade in saiga horns. By 1958, the antelope's population had swelled to two million, making it the most numerous ungulate in the Soviet Union.

But all that changed following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. With borders reopened, a thriving black market for saiga horns has fueled unprecedented poaching. In the Betpakdala region of Kazakhstan alone, the animal's numbers dropped from more than half a million in 1993 to fewer than 4,000 in 2002. In March of that year, customs authorities in Kazakhstan confiscated six tons of saiga horns--translating to approximately 20,000 slaughtered animals.

Worsening the saiga's plight, poachers after horns kill only males (though some females are hunted for meat), which has skewed the species' sex ratio and impaired its ability to reproduce. A study by Milner-Gulland and scientists from Russia and Kazakhstan found that males now make up less than 1 percent of the population in Kalmykia, down from 25 percent in 1991.

Anecdotal observations suggest that this dearth of males has forced females to begin competing for them, with 500 or more females sometimes vying for a single male. The result is that many subdominant females are not able to breed at all. According to Richard Reading, conservation biology director of the Denver Zoological Foundation, studies also show that some male antelope in captivity need to fight with one another to build up adequate testosterone and sperm counts. Reading, who has garnered international support for saiga conservation in Kalmykia, suspects that lack of male combat is another factor contributing to low saiga reproduction.

But conservationists and scientists like Reading are far from ready to give up on the saiga. To find out what they're doing to save the species in Kalmykia, I drove 900 miles from my home in western Russia. My first stop was the Black Lands Biosphere Reserve, Kalmykia's main saiga refuge. Covering more than 300,000 acres of steppe in the eastern part of the republic, the reserve was created in 1990 to protect the antelope's habitat, by then reduced to less than a fifth of its original area. Each May, more than 70 percent of the Kalmykian saiga population gathers in the reserve to give birth, protected by armed rangers from the reserve and by a mobile anti-poaching squad from Kalmykia's Game Management Agency. But despite these efforts, poaching, combined with natural predators and the species' skewed sex ratio, have reduced Kalmykia's saiga numbers to 12,000 animals, just 5 percent of the 1997 level.

After touring the reserve, I traveled 20 miles beyond its boundaries to the village of Khulkhuta with ranger Arslang Udjakov. Salt flats stretch between the reserve and the village. Here poachers traveling in groups of up to 22 motorbikes chase saiga attracted by the salt. Racing at speeds over 70 miles per hour, the hunters work together to herd the antelope, running them until they keel over from exhaustion and then cutting their throats. "The saiga have no chance to escape in the salt flats," says Udjakov. "These flats are soaked with the blood of many thousands of saiga."

Khulkhuta, like other towns that once thrived on subsidized collective farms, is experiencing a deep economic crisis. Many people are unemployed and live in poverty. The temptation to earn money by hunting saiga is great: One kilo of saiga horn--taken from between two and four males--nets a villager about $80.

According to zoologist Anna Luschekina of the Russian Man and the Biosphere Committee (MAB), until people who live in towns like Khulkhuta are rewarded for protecting saiga rather than killing them, poaching will never stop. Last spring, Milner-Gulland received funds to work with Luschekina and others on a three-year project in Kalmykia and Kazakhstan to conduct educational and training programs and gauge local community interest in saiga conservation.

Alexei Vaisman of TRAFFIC–Russia, the wildlife trade-monitoring network of the World Wildlife Fund and IUCN--The World Conservation Union, says demand in China must also be curtailed and black market dealers weeded out. "As soon as the export channels are cut off," says Vaisman, "the absence of demand will trickle down to poachers."

But many conservationists believe steps to alleviate the causes of poaching won't have an impact soon enough to save remaining saiga populations. To try and boost numbers of males in the wild, Yuri Arylov, former science director at the Black Lands reserve, is breeding the antelope in captivity at a center for saiga conservation he created with support from MAB. This year, Arylov plans to release the first half dozen male saiga into the Kalmykian population.

Luschekina and others say that more safe saiga habitat is needed as well. "The problem is not only that the protected areas cover too small a portion of the animal's range; it is also that they are fixed in space, while the animals are not," says Luschekina. Ideally, 30 times more land should be protected to safeguard the saiga's main migration routes, she says.

Back in the Black Lands reserve, I climb a low rise and catch sight of a herd of several hundred saiga milling around a broad depression. Crouching behind tufts of feathergrass, I peer through my binoculars. Most of the animals are pregnant females. Some have already given birth, and I find a dozen calves lying motionless and nearly invisible on bare patches of sand. A steppe eagle circles above and wolves likely lurk nearby. Poachers also may find the herd, which must remain here until all the calves are born and strong enough to run. With the odds against them, I wonder how many calves will live long enough to bring their own young into the world and give the saiga another chance to survive.

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